Tag Archives: amazon basin

Deforestation in Brazil continues to soar as current administration shows lack of interest

Deforestation in Brazil’s part of the Amazon basin has almost doubled in June compared to May — and May also had a higher-than-usual deforestation rate. This is largely attributed to the current administration reducing controls in the area which has emboldened loggers.

Logging in the Amazon. Image in public domain.

The Amazon basin is 20% larger than the entire European Union put together. It hosts the largest rainforest in the world, which has been teeming with biodiversity for 55 million years. The majority of the forest is contained within Brazil (60%) and has been continuously inhabited by humans for at least 11,000 years. With its over 400 billion trees, the Amazonian rainforest stores centuries worth of carbon, deflecting an important amount of solar heat. Around 20% of all the world’s freshwater cycles through this ecosystem, feeding its rivers, soil, plants, and animals. But, as we’ve known for quite a while, the rainforest is in trouble — and the current administration led by Jair Bolsonaro shows little intent to protect it.

Just minutes after he was sworn into office, Bolsonaro started an assault on Amazon rainforest protections, transferring the regulation and creation of indigenous reserves to the agriculture ministry, which is heavily influenced by agriculture industry lobby — the largest cause of deforestation in the area. His actions have emboldened loggers in the area. Although deforestation was temporarily stopped by a heavy rain season, things appear to be much worse than last year.

“Bolsonaro has aggravated the situation,” said Paulo Barreto, a researcher at Brazilian non-governmental organization Imazon.

In May, deforestation rose 34% compared to the same month last year, and in June clear cutting went up by 88%.

Deforestation is typically measured across an entire year to the end of July, but this year is already well on track to surpass its predecessor. Over the 11 months that have passed so far, there has been an increase of 4,565 square kilometers (1,762 square miles), with June alone exhibiting losses of 920 square kilometers.

Most of the area is converted into agricultural planting, particularly soybeans and grains. Ironically, this is largely fueled by the planet’s lust for meat, as most of these plants aren’t being used to feed people, but rather to feed cattle. Globally, 98% of soybeans are used to feed cattle, despite the fact that pound per pound, they have just as much protein as beef. Expanding ranches is also a driving force behind deforestation, as is the mining sector.

Claiming to boost economic growth, Bolsonaro has moved in to dismantle many environmental laws, as well as protections for the indigenous people. He has repeatedly spoken against environmental protections and “excessive” fines against logging. Along with his son, who is also a senator in the country, Bolsonaro is pushing to remove legislation that forces Amazon farmers to maintain a 20-80% tree cover.

The Amazon rainforest is vital for the global fight against climate change, making its protection a priority not only for Brazil, but for the entire world.

Arapaima leptosoma. (c) Copeica 2013

New Arapaima species discovered in Amazon: a giant fish that can breath air

A diver shares a tank with an adult arapaima fish at an aquarium in Manaus, Brazil. Known as the pirarucu in Brazil and the paiche in Peru, this South America giant is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. Some reach lengths of more than 10 feet (3 meters) and weigh upward of 400 pounds (180 kilograms).  Large megafish like these have become rare worldwide due to heavy fishing. The arapaima is the focus of several conservation projects in South America, including no-fishing reserves and fishing quotas.  (c) Zeb Hogan

A diver shares a tank with an adult arapaima fish at an aquarium in Manaus, Brazil. Known as the pirarucu in Brazil and the paiche in Peru, this South America giant is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. Some reach lengths of more than 10 feet (3 meters) and weigh upward of 400 pounds (180 kilograms).
Large megafish like these have become rare worldwide due to heavy fishing. The arapaima is the focus of several conservation projects in South America, including no-fishing reserves and fishing quotas.
(c) Zeb Hogan

Also known as the paiche or the pirarucu, the arapaima is one of the most fascinating species of fish in the world. It’s one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, and certainly the biggest in South America, being a native to the Amazon Basin and nearby lakes and swamps. These arapaima are absolutely huge, most spanning 2.5 meters in length and weighing up to 200 kg, but some may grow even bigger. Besides its size, though, the arapaima immediately stands out through another feature: it can breath air.

Though arapaimas can stay underwater for 10 to 20 minutes, they tend to remain near the water’s surface, where they hunt and emerge often to breathe with a distinctive coughing noise. They survive mainly on fish but are known to occasionally grab birds close to the water’s surface. Because they stay so close to the water surface, this also makes them particularly vulnerable to fishing. Today, arapaima are rarely seen in the Amazon basin and conservation efforts are made to protect this giant fish.

Recently, biologists have described a new species of  arapaima: the Arapaima leptosoma, is the first new species to be described since 1847. Its name is derived from the Greek leptos (slender) and soma(body), in reference to the relatively slender body form of this species. Like its cousins, the Arapaima l. can also grow very large, and aside from its slender form it also presents some other specific characteristics.

Arapaima leptosoma. (c) Copeica 2013

Arapaima leptosoma. (c) Copeica 2013

According to professor Donald Steward, who led the team of researchers who described the Arapaima l. in a paper published in the journal Copeia: the new species is “distinguished from all other Arapaima by following three characters: dorsalmost lateralis sensory cavity on preopercle extremely slender; ventrolateral margin of head where third infraorbital meets anterior limb of preopercle strongly angled such that ventral surface of head is almost flat; and anterior third of dorsal-fin base covered with an enlarged, thickened sheath that hides anterior dorsal-fin rays when adpressed.”

So far, only one specimen of Arapaima l. has been found. A lone fish caught in 2001 near the confluence of the Solimões and Purus rivers in Amazonas State, Brazil.

[ALSO READ] Did you know there’s a fish that has human teeth? The sheepshead fish is one of a kind

“Collecting adult Arapaima involves considerable difficulties, both with logistics in the field and subsequent storage in museums,” Prof Stewart wrote in the paper.

“As this study demonstrates, however, collecting at least a few voucher specimens can greatly enhance our knowledge of these fascinating fishes. Many more are needed.”

“Arapaima have high economic, cultural, and scientific value, but their diversity has been overlooked for too long,” the scientist concluded.

 

Ecosystems still feel the pain of ancient extinctions

The more researchers study ecosystems, the more we learn that an ecosystem behaves, in many ways, just like a living organism: thousands of years after human hunters wiped out big land animals like giant ground sloths, the ecosystems they lived in are still suffering from the effects, much like a body suffers from past trauma.

The giant sloth, imagined in happier days. Image: Jaime Chirinos/SPL

The giant sloth, imagined in happier days. Image: Jaime Chirinos/SPL

Humans wiping out species (directly through hunting or indirectly through habitat destruction) is not really a new thing. Early human hunters have posed a stress on environments for thousands if not tens of thousands of years, because they were so successful and the prey didn’t have enough time to adapt.

Most ecosystems rely on big animals to supply them with nutrients (read: dung fertilizing).

“If you remove the big animals from an ecosystem, you pretty much stop nutrients moving,” says Chris Doughty of the University of Oxford.

In order to understand the impact of this extinction, Doughty and his colleagues studied the distribution of phosphorous – a nutrient that plants need to grow; he analyzed the Amazon basin in South America, an area which was once the home of fantastically large animals, such as elephant-like gomphotheres and giant ground sloths.

Unfortunately for these spectacular animals though, some 12.500 years ago, humans moved to South America, and shortly after this, these animals went extinct due to extensive hunting and climate change. Today, the Amazon basin is home to a huge biodiversity, but there are no more truly big animals – and their extinction still has a massive effect on the distribution of phosphorous throughout the basin.

Using the relationship between animal size and phosphorous distribution, Doughty estimated how much phosphorus South America’s larger extinct animals would have transported 15,000 years ago. His model concluded that megafauna would have spread nutrients 50 times faster than today’s fauna. This happens because big animals carry more food around in their bellies and they also travel more searching for food. It’s just like blood vessels in the body:

When you get rid of big animals, it’s like severing the nutrient arteries.”, says Doughty. He thinks the same thing happened in North America, Europe and Australia, where most big animals have also been wiped out. “The idea that herbivores redistribute nutrients is not new, but the scale of this thinking is much, much bigger,” says Tim Baker at the University of Leeds in the UK.

If his model is correct, than it’s quite safe to assume that the Amazon is still recovering from this drastic event which severely altered the circuit of nutrients. With large herbivores gone from the area, it’s up to the humans to take their role – but we’re doing the complete opposite of what they’re doing.

amazon basin

“These megafauna would disperse nutrients, whereas humans concentrate them,” says Doughty. We spread fertiliser on small plots of productive farmland, and keep large animals like cows fenced rather than letting them roam freely. “There are probably more nutrients because of people, but they are very poorly distributed.”